“Just think of it—a span of sixty years of the greatest maritime development in history. He was with it all the way and depicted the entire spectrum of this interesting panorama, and he did it accurately, artistically and dramatically. […] His expert and detailed recording of those events was by all odds his single greatest contribution”
- Rudolph J. Schaefer, J.E. Buttersworth, 19th-Century Marine Painter, Mystic, Connecticut, 1975, no. 487 (the pair), p. 257
American Frigates in a Storm is a dynamic maritime portrait by James E. Buttersworth (1817–1894), who was known in the 19th century for painting lively vessels in their natural conditions. Appreciated alongside other American marine painters such as William Bradford and Fitz Henry Lane, he rendered temporal elements in his pieces, thereby reducing any static features and relying on dramatic sky effects to capture the viewer's eye. In this particular painting, Buttersworth uses this technique of a striking, golden skyline to illuminate his vessels.
According to a letter from John Carter, President of the Independence Seaport Museum of Philadelphia, “This particular work shows a central axis of sunlight so characteristic of his work and the dark middle tones are present in the clouds which go into pink and red tinting on the edges, again another tell-tale characteristic of the artist’s work.”
Hailing from what is now the northwest of Greater London, Buttersworth came from an artistic family. His father, Thomas Buttersworth, Jr., was a respected sea painter, and it was undoubtedly he who cultivated his son’s artistic persona. In 1845, Buttersworth sought to make a name for himself in America when he chose to settle in what is now Union City, New Jersey, where he quickly became a well-established marine artist. Signing his works, J.E. Buttersworth, magazines and newspapers often used his works to report on the yachting events of the day, and the firm Currier and Ives often copied Buttersworth’s pieces as lithographs. With a knack for meticulous detail, he could document the vessels residing in the New York Harbor and nearby areas. His reputation soared as he demonstrated his ability to portray faithfully the sailing yachts, steamers, and racing clipper ships of the time.
To account for the motion of these vessels, Buttersworth would elongate the hulls and sails to create a sense of speed along a low horizon line. Contrasting dramatic skies with his accurate detail, he romanticized the sailing ships in his pieces which remain timeless pieces of sophistication to the viewer, such as American Frigates in a Storm.
Buttersworth's paintings of the 1893 Vigilant vs. Valkyrie II Cup match—done one year before his death—completed the chronicling of America's Cup races through oil painting just before the advent of viable sports photography. As a result of his work, Buttersworth was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1999; and nearly 600 of his paintings are known to exist.
Cahoon Museum of American Art, Cotuit, Massachusetts
Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey